Heartworm Basics and Why It’s Important to Protect Your Pets

One of the most important components of an annual trip to the veterinarian is the heartworm test. While dogs are the most commonly afflicted pets, cats and other animals can also contract heartworm disease. It is important to visit your veterinarian regularly in order to prevent and, if necessary, treat this illness in your pets.

What Are Heartworms?

Heartworms are a type of roundworm, a parasite that is transported from one infected host to a new host by mosquitoes. The heartworms then invade the blood vessels and heart, as the name suggests. Adult heartworms can survive in the body of the pet for up to 5 years, and an animal could have as many as 300 worms inside its heart by the time it is diagnosed.

Why Are Heartworms Dangerous?

Once inside the heart, these worms continue to reproduce and mature. The adult heartworms can interfere with the valves in the heart, and can cause congestive heart failure. These worms also clog the blood vessels that lead to other major organs in the body. By the time the disease is diagnosed in pets, it is usually advanced enough that they are experiencing some tissue and organ failure. There is a high risk of death for pets that contract heartworms.

What Are Symptoms of Heartworm Disease?

In the early stages, there may not be any noticeable symptoms. Once the disease progresses, the veterinarian may notice abnormal heart and lung sounds, anemia, and weight loss. Owners may also notice a dry cough and shortness of breath, as the worms deprive the lungs of oxygen from the blood and damage the tissue. Pets will also likely experience a loss of stamina from the malfunction of organs throughout the body.

How Is Heartworm Disease Diagnosed?

The first and most widely used test to diagnose heartworms is a blood test that detects proteins in the pet’s blood that are produced by adult worms. Blood tests can also show an abnormal reading of complete blood counts for the pet, which indicates symptoms of the disease, such as poor kidney and liver function. X-rays and ultrasounds of the heart can show enlargement of the heart, swelling of arteries, and sometimes even the worms themselves.

How Can Heartworm Disease Be Treated?

heartworm disease is treated with a multi-faceted approach. First, a medication is injected that kills all of the adult worms living within the heart. There may be several rounds of this treatment needed, and the veterinarian will decide a timeline for this course of treatment based on the pet’s specific case. Additionally, the pet will require a drug to kill the baby heartworms. This happens about a month after the first treatment is completed, and may require a hospital stay. After that, the pet will be prescribed a medication to prevent the reformation of the heartworms, as well as plenty of rest. Treatment can be risky, especially for dogs with advanced stages of the disease and evidence of organ failure.

What Can Owners Do to Prevent Heartworm Disease?

Taking your pet to annual appointments with the veterinarian is the best way to prevent heartworm disease, or at the very least, to catch it early. In addition to running a blood test for heartworms, the veterinarian can prescribe a monthly medication that prevents the maturation of the worms inside of your pet’s heart. You are your pet’s best advocate. Be sure to take them to the veterinarian regularly to help prevent the development of heartworm disease.